It’s over ten years since Half-Life 2 was released. The other day I found myself arguing that there still hadn’t been a first-person shooter released that was better. Then wondered if I was talking out of my hat. In an effort to learn whether Half-Life 2 is as great – nay, as perfect – as the version in my head, I’ve replayed it, and realised there’s so much I’d forgotten.
“Gordon Freeman? You mean the guy who came into our apartment carrying that creepy broken doll, then threw all our furniture out the windows? He’s your hero?”
I’d love to see an action movie where the main character behaves like I do in FPS games.
“Quick, Sam Fists, you have to get to the roof to switch off the nuclear missle!”
“Okay, sure, but first let me see if I can balance this bin on your head.”
It’s weird to remember that Half-Life 2 was one of the first times such behaviour felt so realistic. Sure, we’d all balanced plant pots on people’s heads in Deus Ex a few years earlier, but HL2 made ignoring the urgency of your peril feel real.
Returning to the game ten and a half years later, I feel that, if anything, I’ve gotten naughtier in this regard. I’ve replayed HL2 in the intervening decade, I think at least twice more, but I’d say it’s been about five years since. Enough time to make returning a swirling mix of nostalgia, and constant surprise at details I’d forgotten. Of course I remembered the train station as Gordon arrives in City 17, but I’d completely forgotten I could (mutely) speak to the other people milling about. I remembered I could throw cans at the heads of the grumpy guards, but I’d forgotten this leads to hooting as I run away, trying to avoid the wrath of their sparky batons. In fact, there’s a lot that I’d forgotten.
I’d forgotten that the teleporter that appears as soon as Gordon arrives at Dr Kleiner’s lab looks an enormous amount like GLaDOS:
I’d forgotten how primitive the shooting feels.
Weapons come without scopes, there’s no ironsights, and headshots absolutely do not offer instant kills. In fact, the whole approach to combat feels bizarre ten years on, where your bullet sponge suit is intended to get shot at, you’re supposed to see your health go down. That’s perhaps the most striking difference, actually.
Obviously over the last decade we’ve seen the FPS switch from metered health and health packs to mystically recharging shallow pools. I think, over the years, I’ve concluded the result of this is FPSs getting easier, letting you just crouch to get better. But going back to HL2, it’s maybe the other way around. A modern FPS gives you an extremely small amount of damage before you’re deaded, as a direct result of your magic insta-healing. But in Half-Life 2, you can just stand out in the open, getting shot at, as you clumsily pick off distant enemies with your pistol. There’ll definitely be a pile of health packs around the next corner, so so what if your health drops to 4%?
It’s odd to adjust back to it, realising I don’t need to incessantly crouch behind objects, but just rather embrace the harmless shooting gallery for what it was.
I’d forgotten just how good the game looks.
At coming up for eleven years old, it’s very reasonable that a lot Half-Life 2 is looking old. But it still looks utterly wonderful. Lots of sharp edges, boxy designs, and square rooms really do attach the game’s design ethos more to the ‘90s than the ‘00s. It feels much closer to Half-Life than it does to Episode 2. Or Portal. Of course, at the time, it was utterly groundbreaking spectacle, and it’s really hard to remember that when even the clumsiest freebie Unity game is constructed with a much more sophisticated set of tools. But wow, little is constructed so incredibly well as Half-Life 2. The tech may have aged, but the artistry has not.
The Citadel at the end captures this better than anywhere else, even those beautiful stretches of beach villages, or the spooky abandoned streets. It is the most emblematic of the creative brilliance overriding the clunky and out-of-date presentation. The volume of activity on screen, the little vignettes of horror as you pass them by, the vast sense of scale, all overcomes the silly non-rails on which you hang, or peculiar shadows falling on the wrong surfaces. It’s masterful.
I’d forgotten that the hovercraft sequence goes on about three times too long.
Oh good grief, what were they thinking? The “air car” or whatever ridiculous name it has occupies about seventeen months of the game. And every time you think it’s finally done, nope, you get right back in and bash-crash your way down yet another 450 mile corridor.
I’m sure I remember enjoying it before. I’m also sure I remember its lasting about ten minutes, not the majority of my adult life. I certainly don’t remember its being so tiresome to control. Clipping on things, randomly flipping upside down in reaction to seemingly nothing, spinning itself, and veering off to the left or right as you line up for the eighty-fourth ramp in a row, it’s completely horrible to drive.
The repetition is deeply surprising too. I suppose if you’d asked me to describe Half-Life 2 based on my memories, I’d have said it was one of the most precisely constructed games ever made – hewed to perfection. I’m really not sure this is true. The flow is often still utterly absorbing, but other sections start to feel bloated, over-long. Especially the bloody hovercraft. Good gracious. Do I have to get off and make another ramp accessible again? OH GOOD.
I’d forgotten how incredibly terrible the music can be.
Bombastic, cheap dance music is really not what suits Half-Life. Its deeply peculiar intermittent appearances only make it more incongruous to the experience, as for some reason this particular section of a level requires the soundtrack to a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie to play in for a minute or two.
I’d forgotten how long it is until you get the Gravity Gun.
I’d forgotten how gruesomely macabre it is.
When I think back on Half-Life, I really don’t remember the gore. But wow, there’s so much of it. Brutal, horrendous human carcases, trees strewn with twisted, mutilated corpses, charred remains prostrate in homes, haunting screams forever etched into the remains of their faces.
I’d forgotten that Ravenhold isn’t very scary.
I’m sure it was. I’m sure it was one of the scariest sections in any game, and would make top seven lists of that sort of thing. There are still abandoned playgrounds, urban decay, lonely streets filled with a fresh array of fast-paced monstrous mutants, but not a moment of it caused me a tremble nor quiver.
And I’m not brave. I’m the sort who has to pause games like Amnesia, Thief: TDP, etc, to get my breath back. Here I was calmly shooting stuff while the completely ridiculous Father Grigori jabbers away merrily in the background. The closest I’d get to scared was lost, because I’d end up going around in circles, looking for whichever ladder I’d missed.
I’d forgotten this scene:
On page two: physics, antlions, striders, sidekicks.
I’d forgotten how bloody awful the ladders are.
Although, in fairness, this is true of every game ever.
I’d forgotten how much fun it is to build bridges across the sand.
And oh my goodness, the jubilation once I’d managed to get a huge long plank to successfully span a gap between two outcrops, and cross. This is certainly in part due to the enormous clumsiness of the Gravity Gun as a tool for feng shui, but even so, all these years on, there’s still something completely lovely about using in-game physics.
It’s odd how little it occurs, outside of games specifically focused on such actions. It gives the world a greater sense of being tangible, and the impact of that is huge.
I forgot I get my own personal army of Antlions.
Of course I remembered the moment it happened – I’ve not received a head injury. But yeah, I of course remembered fighting the Antlions, and especially dodging the sand to avoid them, but I’d quite forgotten that this is followed up by teaming up with an ever-replenishing squad of four of the critters. And for how long. These guys really stick around!
I was very quickly calling them “buddies”. “Good work, buddies!” I’d say, out loud, as they cleared an enemy outpost for me. “Come on, guys!” I’d say, if they were lagging, or distracted. “Guys, you’re back!” I’d cry in delight, when they found a new hole in the hospital floor.
I'd forgotten how un-bloody-believably annoying the squads are.
That the antlions appear to have more nous and skill than the humans is troubling indeed. I reached the point of sending allied fighters ahead into the line of fire so they'd be dead, and I could get on with things without having EVERY SINGLE DOORWAY INCESSANTLY BLOCKED.
"Oh, sorry Mr Freeman."
IF YOU WERE SORRY YOU'D MOVE OUT OF THE FUCKING DOORWAY.
I forgot how brilliant taking the turret with me could be.
That scene with Alyx, where you’re waiting for her to show up, defending a little area with a couple of reprogrammed turrets. That’s a fun scene. But even more fun, I’d forgotten, is seeing how far through the rest of the game I could take one of the turrets, and let it do all my shooting for me.
Getting across that electrified watery room should be the first big challenge. But of course it’s actually trying to get the spasmodic Gravity Gun to flipping well carry it down a stairwell. Come the next turret sequence, and you’ve got enough to guard all four entrances! And the extra cover in the teleporter scene makes so much difference.
I’d forgotten just how long this game is.
This article was meant to take two days. It’s taken four.
I'd forgotten that there is nothing more sad than a Strider's scream.
I’d forgotten how cool the Gravity Gun gets at the end, and how annoying it is that it wasn’t like it for longer.
My purpose when starting Half-Life 2 again was to see if my idyllic memory of it holds true, and whether it really is still one of the best FPS game ever made.
I’m left, well, confused. I’ve certainly not come out of it assured of my correctness, reinvigorated to stand by the claim. But I’m equally unable to really argue against it, to come up with an FPS I’ve enjoyed more.
Maybe BioShock? Probably not, no. While the story was interesting, the absolute hypocrisy of BioShock’s twist, and then continuation of the same it was pretending to be satirising, still puts me off. Plus it was too damned fiddly to be my favourite. Perhaps Dishonored? There’s a good argument to be made there, but then Half-Life managed to get through its 15-20 hours without finding the need to visit a brothel. Could be. No One Lives Forever? Ooh, that’s tempting, but going back to that one reveals itself as even slower than Half-Life 2’s surprising pace.
It’s perhaps more damning of the long-ailing FPS genre than anything else. But yes, despite being surprised by the looseness of what I’d thought was one of the tightest games ever made, it really is probably the best one. Maybe.